How To Finish College Early: 7 Awesome Tips That Colleges Don’t Want You to Read

(Ok, that’s a little tongue in cheek. But I’ve never seen one of these lists from a university.) college graduate

College takes a long time. Most bachelor’s degrees run 4-5 years, and if you want a master’s or doctorate, plan for 6-10 years. That’s a huge chunk of time. (I realize there are shorter degrees and special programs, but these are fairly normal numbers.) In that time, a college student is likely not settled into a permanent dwelling (most live in dorms or shared apartments), probably isn’t working a career job, and may have relationships on hold (depending on distance, money, and the possibility of distraction from studies.) Of course, I am generalizing here, but bear with me.

What are the benefits of finishing early?

  1.  It’s cheaper. Less tuition, faster high-paying job. Simple math.
  2. Looks good on a resume. Employers can assume that a student with an accelerated degree is driven, responsible, and smart.
  3. More stability. Less time in college means you can pick a permanent residence, job, and/or significant other sooner.

So how do you do it?

(A few caveats: these suggestions are based on personal experience and vary by school, degree, and person.)

  1. Start in high school. Many universities offer dual credit or reduced cost classes for high school students. It’s relatively easy to knock out a semester’s worth of credits ahead of time.
  2. CLEP, CLEP, CLEP. A CLEP exam can earn you 3 credits for $80. That’s cheap. Do the math: $400 for 15 credits. With scholarships, my semester costs are $4000-$5000. I didn’t know about CLEP in high school, which is one of my worst regrets.
  3. Plan your entire college career from Day 1. Or before. This whole idea requires intense planning and research on your part. No matter how helpful your adviser, they won’t go out of their way to plan this for you. Planning ahead keeps you from working yourself into a corner–those pesky prerequisites or classes only offered once every 3 years can bring your whole plan to a screeching halt.
  4. Know your university’s academic guidelines by heart. Why is this important? Because you can make them work for you. Substitute a more convenient class for a required one, concoct an internship your major doesn’t offer, etc. Like I said before, the university won’t seek you out and tell you these things, so you need to be proactive.
  5. Plan to do summer work. Many universities offer online summer classes–you can knock out a semester’s credits in 6 weeks, for a fraction of the cost. Internships are also good options for summer work–most universities offer academic credit for an internship, so not only do you gain valuable work experience, you advance your degree as well!
  6. Jump into extracurriculars. Well, not all of them–you probably won’t have time. But some schools offer credit for extracurriculars. Again, good experience, great contacts, and still earning academic credit.
  7. Take a heavy credit load. Most checksheets will advise 15-16 credits a semester. Depending on your degree, other responsibilities, and speed of learning, I suggest taking 18-20. It requires careful planning, but can be done.

Does that sound overwhelming? It shouldn’t. Let me encourage you a little: I’m completing a bachelor’s degree at an academically challenging university a year earlier than allotted. And I didn’t even follow tips 1 & 2! I learned about the possibility of graduating early during my first semester from a coworker who was graduating with her bachelor’s in information technology in 3 years. I immediately began planning to that end. I’ve taken 18, 19, 20 credits, taken entire semesters during the summer, and pulled every string I can find. Don’t despair that all this academic work will ruin your social life–I’ve also worked an average of 30-40 hours per week, played on sports teams, maintained a long distance relationship, been involved in community outreach, and regularly attended plays, concerts, and other social gatherings. I don’t regret a moment of it (well, except for not knowing about CLEP and dual-credit classes…).

A few more caveats: this system requires a lot more planning for difficult majors like nursing or education (mostly because of practicum, clinicals, and student teaching). It’s also a little harder if your major is inflexible–I have a very flexible major and no minor, so I basically set my own schedule. Finally, this idea is challenging if you struggle academically, although it is still possible. The main solution to all three of those problems is extensive pre-planning.

Are you invigorated? Challenged? Share your own ideas and experiences in the comments! And spread this post to high-schoolers and over-achieving college students!

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